The subtle and complex art of writing music for the media

The role of the composer in modern media can be complex and challenging. What is less appreciated is the way that the music that subtly reinforces our emotions in film is often the product of equally cunning manipulation. How well the soundtrack does that job is down to the skill of the composer. The music needs to stand in its own right – but not stand in the way of the film and its message.

Music For Media

It’s all about using music to aid the story telling. During the edit, a variety of temporary soundtracks (known as temp tracks) are used to heighten the emotional impact of different parts of the film. A temp track is an existing piece of audio that acts as a guideline for the type of music that the producer wants to hear at a given point. The composer’s job is to create a new piece of music that draws inspiration from the temp track, without plagiarising it.

It’s a fine line for the composer, says David who has worked on soundtracks for film and TV programmes for more than 20 years. He explained: “In the 1940’s and early fifties, movie directors started to request that music supervisors (whose job it was to find relevant music for a specific scene or segment) placed an existing piece of music on to sections of a rough cut of a film as staff film scorers and songwriters were simply unable to work fast enough to satisfy the speed of demand for the required score in order that a film could be shown to what we’d now call a focus group. It was impossible for them to show the film without music as it had no emotional impact and so pre-existing music from other projects would be ‘temped’ into the current film as a stop-gap to the original piece being written.

“Sometimes a director and music supervisor would get so used to a temp track after living with it for a long time that they’d even ditch the composers work in the end and use the temp track on the final movie. In Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Platoon’, about half of the temp track was finally used on the actual film – that’s why Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings became the main theme of the film.”

The music on film and TV is often far more subtle than the surging strings heard on Platoon. It’s often used to set a mood or establish a period of time – maybe a few bars of something that sounds like Bing Crosby (but isn’t) played through an old radio in an adjoining room or heard through an open window.

jazz-band-800-pix-Music For MediaSays Jeff: “The challenge for us is to break down the writing, recording and editing of period pieces into component parts in order that every aspect of the final work will appear as if made years ago.

“Even the chords used in songs are particular to different decades. Some progressions will ‘give the game away’ as they were not used when a piece is supposed to have been written.”

Even the instrumentation must be faithful to a time period. Sometimes Jeff and David will go a stage further, and will record on period instruments using musicians who are specialists in playing thirties jazz.

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Jeff says: “We often look  to emulate the performing styles of famous musicians from the period that they are recreating – for example when re-making jazz recordings purporting to be from the late 20’s and early 30’s, the drum style of Zutty Singleton will undoubtedly be heard. He performed as drummer on landmark recordings with Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five and before microphones were able to cope with the explosive sound of a snare drum being hit, he’d set up the suitcase that he famously carried with him and play the suitcase with brushes – a sound that could be heard on many early Louis Armstrong / Singleton recordings.

“It’s all about attention to detail. You might need to make a sound that evokes a particular period. Old technology has its own ‘fingerprint’ but we use the latest tech to create music that is as faithful as possible to the original. Finally, after all that, we may take our twenty-first century recording and degrade it to make it sound like it’s a shellac 78 playing out of a 1930 RCA Victor record player in a wooden cabinet.”